The vessel shipped out on time. It made this voyage twice a month and was packed from end to end. I was in the rear section and, being thirsty for a little conversation, turned to the neighbour on my right. He was smartly arranged and a little shorter than me. “Wonderful, isn't it, getting to visit so many countries, so many minds.”
Normally I'd have left it there, but release doesn't happen every day. “I mean, isn't it thrilling to be finally out?”
“Look, I don't wish to be a killjoy, but the system sucks. I'm only here because that bastard assessor finally gave in. Doubtless you sailed through.”
How little he knew. The early stages had been relatively painless. I'd started off as a simple sketch. Then my visuals appeared, courtesy of my first parent. Flesh soon followed, initially filling out my middle, then my end and finally my beginning. Within a month I was in reasonable shape. Then my last parent decided to rearrange everything, carved away large parts of me and grafted new material in its place. My first parent complained that the new arrangement wasn't historically correct, though eventually she agreed it made me easier to absorb. Finally, at 6893 words long, just shy of the limit, I was good to go. My last parent hesitated for a moment, then sent me off for evaluation.
The admissions officer looked me over for a while, then dispatched me to three assessors. I recognised one of the names, Professor K, because my parents had suggested her. I spent quite a while in her office – spartan except for a thorny plant that blocked most of the light from the window. She compiled the longest report.
A month later I was back with my parents. My last parent fumed at the injustice – the nasty comments clearly came from his competitor Dr M (he never guessed it was Professor K). My first parent lamented the end of her career. The following day, things seemed to have calmed down a little, as my parents agreed that, with some clarifications, a further test and an extra control, they should be able to satisfy the tough assessor. Three months later, after extensive surgery and implantation of a new visual, my parents said I'd never looked better. A final few touches and they sent me back for evaluation, together with a letter explaining how much I'd improved.
Two of the assessors responded straightaway but I spent a further three weeks among the thorns of Professor K's office. Finally, she ticked the box saying she preferred to remain anonymous and sent me back.
My parents were overjoyed.
“It wasn't easy,” I replied to my neighbour. “I had an obnoxious assessor just like you. Still, it was worth it in the end. I mean I'm probably better for the surgery and so proud to be finally out.”
“I had to go through three rounds. Can you believe it! Three rounds of surgery until that vicious assessor finally caved. My parents were traumatised by the experience.”
“How terrible,” I said, recalling the pain of my procedure. “Going through one operation was bad enough.”
“Mind you, my last parent dealt with it remarkably well. She helped the others pick themselves up each time to go back into the fight. The noxious assessor didn't sign in the end, so my parents never knew who he was.”
“My brute didn't sign either.”
“Exactly! They can just throw whatever dirt they like without fear of recrimination. I mean, I thought science was all about honesty and transparency. How naïve I was!”
“Yeah,” I said, warming to his theme, “if you have a valid criticism, you should be prepared to say it openly without all this clandestine business. My last parent tells people to their face what he thinks. And even though he's quite senior, he doesn't mind being criticised by anyone, so long as it's fair.”
“Mine's just the same. I wish all scientists were like that.”
As my companion turned away, I caught sight of his last parent's name – Professor K. I recoiled as if impaled by thorns. My companion also seemed in shock because he'd stopped in mid-turn and was gawping at my last parent's name with comparable horror. An awkward silence…We looked at each other for a moment, then both broke out laughing.